In the aftermath of the fire that partially destroyed 70 Mulberry Street, several Chinatown advocacy and cultural groups rallied to pressure the Department of City Planning (DCP) to begin a restoration assessment. Built in 1893, the City-owned building contains a storied history; it was previously utilized as P.S. 23 and houses over forty years of archival material for the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). As of January 2020, the building hosted several organizations such as the Chinatown Manpower Project, Chinese-American Planning Council, H.T. Chen & Dancers, and United East Athletics Association. Because the building primarily operated as a community resource (providing job training, language learning, senior services, nonprofit cultural advocacy, and archive storage), the relevance of the space spanned generations, including members of the Chinese diaspora and beyond. Although the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) filed demolition permits, the Chinatown community successfully pressured the City to set aside $80 million for restoration plans. The New York Landmark Conservancy also suggested a preliminary landmark preservation study, however, DCAS has yet to assess the site and plans to charter a third-party firm to conduct an independent architectural inquiry. Chinatown is at critical risk of losing this building which has historically functioned as a de facto community space for local residents and neighbors.
The contestation over 70 Mulberry reveals a narrative about Chinatown public memory and highlights community desires and anxieties about placemaking and preservation in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Ultimately, the events occurring “at” and “after” 70 Mulberry Street provide a complicated perspective on the makings and maintenance of an ethnic enclave vis à vis community participation.
Although Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the oldest ethnic enclaves in the U.S., the contours of the neighborhood have dramatically changed since its beginnings. In 1880, Chinatown encompassed little more than Mott and Pell Streets below Canal. In 1893, architect Charles B.J. Snyder designed and commissioned 70 Mulberry Street for the new P.S. 23. The school’s opening coincided with remarkable changes to the neighborhood. Shortly after, the Calvert Vaux-designed Columbus Park opened. In the 1890s, between 700 and 1,100 Chinese residents lived in Chinatown. By 1960, Chinatown’s population exceeded over 20,000. The postwar years were characterized by heightened white flight, which motivated white residents to move out of the urban center. Housing vacancies were filled by new Chinese immigrants spurred by immigration reform after the Magnusson Act (1943) which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). The Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) catalyzed a new wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. For decades, the school taught students of primarily Anglo origin. However, as a result of new immigration reforms, classes at P.S. 23 began to reflect changes to the racial composition of the community.
Ethnic compositions also changed as Manhattan’s Chinatown expanded eastwards. In the 1980s, Cantonese, Toisanese, and Shanghainese-speaking communities began dwindling as Mandarin-speaking migrants from Taiwan and Fuzhou province settled along the East Broadway corridor. Between the 1970s to early 2000s, Chinatown’s cultural impact and tourist attractions shaped its presence in the New York cultural lexicon. Unfortunately, post-9/11 security measures closed nearby Park Row, which severed major tourist routes. The garment industry was also effectively shut down, further crippling Chinatown’s economic base and population. Between 2000 and 2010, census tracts indicate that the Chinese population declined by 30%. However, satellite Chinese communities also dramatically increased in New York; current-day settlements in Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, and Flushing are now dominant landing hubs for new immigrants. It is important to highlight the use of “ethnic enclave” in place of “immigrant neighborhood,” as Chinatown’s current population is no longer exclusive to first-generation working class immigrants and now includes second and third-generation Chinese-Americans as well as non-Chinese demographics.
In the mid-twentieth century, vibrant Chinatowns across the U.S. such as in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. were forcibly displaced or dissolved by “City Beautiful” urban renewal projects. In New York, Robert Moses attempted to launch a large-scale planning development called “China Village,” which would insert architectural embellishments such as pagodas and gates.1 Despite these overhead planning challenges and local racial violence perpetrated by surrounding white communities, Chinatowns continued to proliferate. In the Asian American diaspora, these urban upbringings are often cited in identity narratives concerning belonging, survival, assimilation, and positionality. Today, Chinatowns throughout the U.S. continue to be threatened by cultural loss and displacement wrought by gentrification and luxury development; these “way of life” concerns are shared by other ethnic enclaves facing similar economic vulnerabilities such as housing affordability and small business closures.2 In Manhattan’s Chinatown, the lack of preservation initiatives meant that several buildings of historic and cultural importance were not conferred protection from demolition, especially local venues such as movie theaters (ie. Pagoda Theatre on East Broadway and Chuan Kung Music Palace on Bowery).
Moreover, despite being distinctly separate neighborhood entities, Chinatown and Little Italy were consolidated under one catalog for the National Register of Historic Places. Concerns raised by community groups and advocates pointed out that Chinatown is the last working class neighborhood in Manhattan that does not have any designated historic districts or zoning protections. The East Village rezoning in 2008, while hailed as a preservation victory, drew criticism from Chinatown and Lower East Side organizers who pointed out that luxury hoteliers and real estate moguls would be incentivized to develop unprotected properties below Houston Street. While rezonings intentionally protect some neighborhoods from development, excluded neighborhoods are left vulnerable to economic speculation. In 2013, the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) in partnership with the Pratt Center for Community Development published a comprehensive report that included recommendations to downzone centrally located historic blocks, regulate affordable housing development, and promote landmarking initiatives. The CWG also highlighted the contemporary relevance and historic significance of 70 Mulberry, as well as noted its structural precarity, echoing the critical need for building repairs and maintenance.
In the aftermath of the fire, nonprofit giants such as the New York Landmarks Conservancy, LES Preservation Initiative, and the City-run Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), strongly lobbied 70 Mulberry Street for a landmark assessment, attesting to the building as one of C.B.J. Snyder’s artifacts. Although the preservation profession has roots in the Anglo-American tradition, diversifying perspectives have broadened attention to non-white cultures, spaces, and sites.3 Positioning the current community as a linkage or extension of the past also provides the site with additional cultural capital, which may have influenced the uptick in preservation coalition interest.4 In New York City, historic district designation places restrictions on demolition, as well as limits new construction and changes to the built environment.5 Since the Department of Buildings and the LPC ensure the “continuity of building amenities,” property owners proposing renovations or construction that would potentially affect the aesthetic or architectural elements engage a troublesome bureaucratic approval process. Preservation efforts oftentimes contribute to inflated socioeconomic changes in landmarked areas, contributing to the same pattern of displacement and gentrification following upzonings. Ultimately, special historic districts or zones are still important because they catalyze and determine how land can be utilized for commercial, manufacturing, or residential use. These are tangible consequences for how space develops into place and is imbued with meaning, which impacts how buildings come to bear eventual cultural significance.6
Decades of advocacy-based planning have championed public participation as a legitimate pathway for communities to exercise autonomy. However, focusing on representation as the key tenet of “authentic” decision-making often overlooks community group intentions to promote their motives or to undermine other agendas. Additionally, assessing cultural groups as Asian-American or Chinatown “caucuses’’ presents hackneyed ideas of cultural essentialism and class homogeneity. Moreover, community groups often clash in their divisive interpretations of communal benefit. In Philadelphia, the Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), a business improvement nonprofit with institutional backing, and Asian Americans United (AAU), an anti-displacement and housing affordability organization, differed in their responses to a proposal to convert an old rail viaduct into an elevated park. The PCDC opposed the plan for the lack of Chinese inclusivity in the planning process, while the AAU supported the initiative for creating accessible public park space.7 Community interests are further muddled or exacerbated by local politicians such as City Councilmembers who are often able to advance or reject local organizing efforts. The recent Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD) rezoning was another example in which Chinese real estate developers, with support from local district leaders, pushed for luxury development in a largely working class and immigrant neighborhood. Another planning intervention to protect affordability for local working class residents is by establishing community land trusts (CLT). With roots in the civil rights movement and Black land ownership advocacy, CLTs are nonprofit organizations that acquire public property and lease the land to local residents for public administration. CLTs are commonly utilized to jumpstart affordable housing developments, effectively protecting the land from the speculative economy. While the Chinatown Working Group report also proposed establishing a CLT, without fiscal backing or a robust outreach campaign, this project could also fail to materialize.
In some ways, the 70 Mulberry Street crisis was a critical moment for the Chinatown community to confront decades of zoning misuse and preservation inaction. Perhaps, this would be the first of many reckonings with the economic pressures and cultural fissures imploding in Chinatown. From June 2020 and onwards, DCP organized a series of informal town halls and “community visioning” Zoom forums for local residents to present ideas on how to move forward. At the outset, the community visioning process highlighted the limitations of public engagement and inclusion efforts. The City neglected to provide a Mandarin or Cantonese- speaking interpreter and outsourced the forums to a third-party urban design organization. Nevertheless, many local residents “showed up” to support the initiative. Commonly echoed next steps stressed the need for an independent structural assessment of the building. Rebuilding from the intact foundation was highly favored over complete demolition. The immediate need was to return the building tenants to their “home” as soon as possible. During the town hall process, several Chinatown cultural groups and nonprofits emerged as dominant voices in the discussion. For example, Think!Chinatown (T!C), a nonprofit neighborhood organization promoting urban design, community engagement, and cultural advocacy, spearheaded the “restore and rebuild” campaign. T!C also distributed restoration renderings by a local architect and mobilized a digital outreach project. Community members employed as architects stressed that the property was zoned for commercial use and implied that the land use should adhere to its zoning ordinance as “public facilities and institutions.” One individual seemed to warn, “as a community facility, the site will also allow a 6.5 FAR [floor area ratio]—if used as a community facility.” Other community members also presented alternative ideas such as adapting the ground floor for a hybrid performing arts/programming venue, likening the space to “[our] own personal Schomburg Center [as in Harlem].” Another resident echoed, “[we should] return the building not just to the tenants but to the overall community.”
On the other hand, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) in partnership with seven other cultural associations (Lin Sing Association, Hoy Sun Ning Yung Association, On Leong Merchants Association, Hip Sing Association, The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Chinese Freemasons, and Chung Kuo Kuo Min Tang Eastern Region) affirmed a preference for demolition and to construct additional commercial space such as an auditorium, ground-level retail storefronts, and even top floor affordable senior housing. At the mention of building affordable housing units, several younger members criticized how undergoing the ULURP process would further delay plans and that affordable housing does not accurately reflect the AMI (area median income) of local seniors and immigrants. Older cultural groups such as the CCBA have differed in their interpretation of community needs and adhere to a more commercial vision by lobbying for capital planning, economic development, and even upzonings. These tensions strike a “new guard, old guard” division among community desires and are further exacerbated by intra-conflict among community members. Even among historic narratives of Chinatown urban society, class divides and dynamics were evident between “uptown” and “downtown” Chinese.8 Whether these conflicts stem from cultural or generational differences may not be readily apparent to “outside” interpretations of a community bloc.
It can be inferred that nearly all current residents in Chinatown and New York area Chinese have passed through—or participated at—70 Mulberry. Sentimental attachments and personal memories serve as powerful motives for community action. Place attachment, in which communities assign emotional and affective meaning to places to facilitate shared community perspective, embeds cultural signifiers into geographies.9 Bondedness and rootedness are also vital components of emotional bonds to neighborhoods.10 During the town hall, one individual solemnly remarked, “Chinatowns came into being because our ancestors were not welcome in many places. Today, Chinese Americans can move more freely to other places. But it’s sad that younger, newer generations that want to carve a future [in Chinatown] cannot have space to do that.”11 When presented as a linkage to Chinatown’s “past,” this characterization presents a mythology and echoes a cultural phenomenon defined as a site of memory. Nora was primarily interested in using memory and imagery of the past as a contextual “landscape” to create historical and temporal distance between “then” and “now.” Where history might fail to narrate the past, memory assists in “accommodating those facts… and nourishing recollections that may be out of focus.” If history is a rigid archive, then memory offers something more liminal or fluid, accessible to all. By imagining the building’s past, the community members tap into the legacy of 70 Mulberry and also participate in an imagined future.
Urbanists frequently cite Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city” framework in mapping sites of marginalization and struggle. In the right to the city lies the public’s right to participate in placemaking equitable neighborhoods. Following the 70 Mulberry Street conflict revealed how local communities are prioritizing an economically and racially just agenda in response to a changing Chinatown. Although a single unifying vision may not materialize for 70 Mulberry, one resident mentioned “the importance of rebuilding and preservation…[of] cultural heritage and economic well-being,” and was met with several approving messages.
1. Greg “Fritz” Umbach and Dan Wishnoff ,“Strategic Self-Orientalism: Urban Planning Policies and the Shaping of New York City’s Chinatown, 1950-2005,” Journal of Planning History 7 (2008): 214-238.
2. Tom Angotti and Sylvia Morse. Zoned Out! : Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City (New York: Urban Research UR, 2018).
3. Melinda J. Milligan, “Buildings as History: The Place of Collective Memory in the Study of Historic Preservation,” Symbolic Interaction 30, no. 1 (2007): 105–123.
4. Pierre Bourdieu,. “Social Space and Symbolic Power,” Sociological Theory, Spring Vol. 7, No. 1 (1989): 14–25.
5. Brian J. McCabe & Ingrid Gould Ellen, “Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change? Examining the Impact of Historic Preservation in New York City,” Journal of the American Planning Association 82, no. 2 (2016): 134–146.
6. Bethany Y. Li, “Zoned Out: Chinatown and Lower East Side Residents and Business Owners Fight to Stay in New York City,” Asian American Policy Review 19 (2010): 91.
7. Arthur Acolin and Domenic Vitiello,“Who Owns Chinatown: Neighbourhood Preservation and Change in Boston and Philadelphia,” Urban Studies 55, no. 8 (2017): 1690–1710.
8. Peter Kwong, The New Chinatown, (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1996).
9. Setha M. Low, “Symbolic ties that bind,” in Place Attachment, Edited by Setha Low and Irwin Altman, (New York: Plenum, 1992), 165–185.
10. Lynne C. Manzo and Douglas D. Perkins, “Finding Common Ground: The Importance of Place Attachment to Community Participation and Planning,” Journal of Planning Literature 20, no. 4 (2006): 335–50.
11. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7-24.
Brenda Lau is pursuing her planning degree with a focus on advocacy-based planning and neighborhood development. She is a volunteer with the Western Queens Community Land Trust.